The Family of John Brown, Abolitionist

Mary and Salmon Brown in Rohnerville

Moved there because they were ostracized, had debt problems

John Brown in the spring of 1859.

John Brown in the spring of 1859.
Library of Congress.

A small article in the West Coast Signal of May 10, 1871 noted the residency of a family whose name required no introduction or explanation. Although far removed from the emotional issue and bloodshed of America's Civil War, Humboldt County knew who John Brown was.

"It may not be generally known that the widow of John Brown is a resident of Humboldt County living with her son Salmon and her daughters Sarah and Ellen. The New York Tribune says that Anna who was with her father at Harper's Ferry, is married in California. The two sons, John and Jason, live in Ohio, Owen in Pennsylvania, and Ruth remains at the old home place in North Elba."


News of Harper's Ferry had been carried in November and December 1859 issues of the Humboldt Times:

"The news of the insurrection of slaves at Harper's Ferry, which reached us by the Overland Mail, has occupied much space in the California journals, but, on the whole, is much less serious than at first supposed from the exaggerated accounts which reached us. The insurrection appears to have been incited by a crazy fanatic named Brown, who figured conspicuously in the Kansas riots. The very fact of his setting himself up at the head of an "army" of 22 men to liberate the slaves of the United States is, of itself, enough to convince anyone that he is either insane or anxious to be hung - the latter object he will probably accomplish if he has not died of his wounds before this." Humboldt Times, Nov. 26, 1859.


One of the most controversial figures in American history, John Brown remains an enigma almost 120 years after his attempt to capture the federal complex at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. A deeply religious man of strong abolitionist sympathies, Brown first advocated the use of violence during the Kansas struggle between free-staters and proslavery people. His tactics were a marked departure from the non-violent tenets of the abolitionist movement, but Brown justified the murders at Pottawatomie and the bloodshed at Harper's Ferry when he prophesied on the day of his execution:

"I, John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done." (Villard, 1943)


Regardless of the obvious folly of Harper's Ferry, its impact on this country can not be minimized. Moderate Southerners who had been restrained in the move towards secession were won over to the radical side in fear their lives and property were no longer safe from northern intrusion. Harper's Ferry alone may not have been significant, but coming as it did at the end of a long line of divisive incidents, it may well have been the catalyst for America's Civil War.

The family members who had suffered personal losses and poverty in Brown's lifetime were to suffer other sorrows after his death. Salmon Brown wrote in an article published in 1913:

"Following the dark days at Harper's Ferry, the suffering of mother and the family was intense. Despised bitterly by all who sympathized with slavery and considered as the victims of a righteous wrath by many of the North, our family was long buffeted from pillar to post. Efforts to forget were fruitless. The passing years did not heal the horrible wounds made by the country father had tried so hard to help to a plane of higher living." (Ruchames, 1969)



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-- West Coast Signal, September 4,1872 --
"Mr. Salmon Brown, of Rohnerville, is turning his attention to the introduction of fine blooded sheep into Humboldt County. We saw in Major Long's corral yesterday a fine full blood Spanish Merino buck which he had sold to H. S. Daniels, Esq., of Arcata. Mr. Brown has sold eight sucking lambs of this breed the present summer for $75 each. By the next steamer he expects to receive some full-blooded Cotswolds lately purchased from Rawson, the noted sheep raiser of Tehama County. We are glad to know that Mr. Brown will exhibit some of his blooded sheep at the approaching Fair of the Humboldt County Agricultural Society."